It is what we might call ‘the consensus judgment’ that President Trump is a deeply ignorant man and perhaps a profoundly ignorant President. But it is worth stepping back and considering just what this means, the different kinds of ignorance that exist and how they differ.
Without making a direct comparison, it is worth remembering that each of the last three Presidents came to office with a steep learning curve about the modalities of the presidency and many aspects of the challenges and issues they would face. Clinton, Bush and Obama were each, in different ways, pretty green. Bush’s father, since he had served in Congress, as head of the CIA and especially because he had served as a fairly active Vice President for the previous eight years, came in knowing quite a lot about the specifics of the Presidency.
Some of the difference with Clinton, Bush and Obama (let’s call them CBO) is that they had good staff or at least knowledgable staff who could help them understand what they didn’t know and advise them on the almost infinite number of details they could never hope to understand in depth. But there’s another key issue. You don’t become President by being excessively humble. Yet CBO each had a sense of what they did not know. At a bare minimum, they didn’t advertise it when they learned something they later realized a lot of other people knew.
What is endearing, terrifying and hilarious about Trump is not simply his ignorance, really his militant ignorance, but his complete lack of self-awareness about his ignorance. Trump told a reporter for The Wall Street Journal that his understanding of the problem of North Korea changed dramatically after hearing ten minutes of history from the President of China. Needless to say, Trump didn’t need to admit this. But neither was it candor.
So far the Trump Presidency has been a sort of Mr Magoo performance art in which the comically ignorant Trump learns elemental or basic things that virtually everyone in the world of politics or government already knew – things that the majority of adults probably know. Health Care: “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” North Korea: “I felt pretty strongly that they had tremendous power. But it’s not what you think.” There are perhaps half a dozen examples equally stark.
In other words, President Trump is open about his discoveries and even eager to share them but universally projects his previous state of comical ignorance onto the general public or whomever he is talking to. In other cases, this would make sense. If Trump discovered that humans could fly if they hold their nose, close one eye and say “Shazam!” I’d want to know. Because that’s awesome. And I wouldn’t think worse of Trump for not knowing it before. Because this is new and amazing information. But learning that health care policy is complicated is a different kind of discovery.
Remaining ignorant is probably a good adaptive strategy for him because it allows him to pretend that everything is obvious, that he can solve any problem and generally act like he can do anything – in a way, this allowed him to become President.
What is key though is to understand that this is not just ignorance. Ignorance is just the first stage of Trump’s fairly advanced problem. He is not only ignorant but clearly unaware of his level of ignorance. This is compounded by a seeming inability to understand that everyone else isn’t equally ignorant to him. Those of us who are parents know the wonder of discovery experienced by small children. They find out there were things such as dinosaurs or close primate relatives called lemurs. As loving parents we indulge them, sometimes feigning ignorance of things we actually already knew to support a child’s joy in discovery.
But Donald Trump is a 70 year old man. And not a terribly nice man.
His ignorance is not endearing. We don’t need to lie to him to make him feel good about himself. Still it is good to understand his condition. Ignorance is just lack of information. But there’s something wrong with Trump’s brain – maybe cognitive, perhaps simple entitlement or just broad spectrum derp – which appears to make it genuinely impossible not to project his own ignorance onto everybody else.